If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m not big on writing rules… unless they are backed by evidence. I’m a science-brained person. If you tell me all writers should do X, please show me some stats.
I’m going to steal an example from myself: I while back I blogged about how so many experts say, “You must join a writing group.” In my post, I asked why. I didn’t say writing groups weren’t good for some people; I merely wanted evidence that being in a writing group increases my chances of publication or makes me a better writer. Because if it doesn’t, why must I join one? Statements aren’t proof of themselves.
Ok. In the world of science, it’s standard practice to back up statements with hard data. Since the goals of writers vary so much, and “better” isn’t a concrete measurement, let’s expand the parameters to include common-sense proof.
For example, agents often advise, “Don’t send a 10-page query letter. I’m not going to read it.” Read enough agent blogs and websites and you will see, again and again, instructions to limit your query to one page, or the equivalent in e-mail form. That should be enough common-sense proof that “Don’t send a 10-page query” is good advice.
Same thing with, “Keep your first manuscript under 90,000 words.” It’s a good, common-sense suggestion. Occasionally a debut novel will be a massive epic, but not usually. Go to Barnes and Noble and look at the new-authors display. Most of those novels are about 300 pages. Go back a month later, and a month after that, and you will see a pattern: 300-page novels. That new-authors display should be solid evidence that your 700-page manuscript will probably get rejected. The odds against being industry published are already dramatic, so why reduce your chances from almost zero to zero?
But then there are the “my personal quirk” bits of advice that writers, agents, publishers, and writing teachers dish out as if from a science book about the solar system: Jupiter is the largest planet. Venus is a rocky world roughly the size of Earth. All writers should use outlines.
What? If Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn joined to form a superplanet, then who would be biggest? Huh? Jupiter? I think not.
Wait, that isn’t the point I was trying to make. Where was I? Oh yeah…
What? All writers should use outlines? That’s not a fact, it’s a personal preference, yet I come across that claim at least once a month somewhere in the advice-o-sphere. The fact that Stephen King does not outline is ample proof that not everyone needs outlines. He became one of the best-selling writers of all time without them. If outlines make you a better writer, then use them, of course. Personal fact: I write better without outlines.
I can give a dozen examples of quirks masquerading as advice that alleges to make us better writers, but, given space limitations, I’ll discuss only one. It really grinds my gears:
“Don’t have characters using profanity. If your characters are swearing, it means you lack creativity with dialog.”
Since lots of really good writers—who are known for their dialog— depict characters swearing, this advice is not advice at all, unless it is prefaced with, “If you get hired to write the next Nancy Drew book…”
Not having characters swear isn’t more creative or less creative. It’s a preference. It might be an unrealistic one sometimes, too. If you write novels and stories about NYC homicide investigators or about angst-filled teens caught up in a world of cheap booze and homemade drugs, for random example, PG-rated dialog would come off as silly and tepid, as if you are trying to avoid offending anyone instead of telling the story the way it needs to be told.
Maybe the advice giver read a poorly written, cliché-riddled manuscript with lots of swearing and thought, “This writer is uncreative. Look at the dialog!” But could it be that, even if the writer had chosen a less-profane route, the novel would still suck? Maybe the profanity-laced dialog is smoke and mirrors. Maybe the problem isn’t that the dialog is dirty… it’s that the writer lacks skill.
Or perhaps the advice giver has a visceral reaction to profanity. Visceral reactions are organic and words are intellectual. That requires a lot of back-and-forth translation between our primal brain to our cerebral brain. That is, there must be a rational reason I was repelled by this dialog. I know! I am a writing expert, and I react to bad writing. Thus, cursing is bad writing!
Oops. I’ve reached my self-imposed limit (see, no plan). Talk to me: